Tag Archives: Alain de Botton

Tilting at Windmills, Part Two

Experience and Participation 

CC BY-NC-SA image by Flickr user barnoid

In Part One of this series, I tried to unpack my visceral reaction to people focusing on immersion as a good or bad thing. My reaction stems from immersion being used as a stalking horse for the real issue, which I think is that kind of optimal experience Csíkszentmihályi called “flow.” Getting hung up on the the delivery system rather than the actual meat of the matter made me think about August and all the steam vented by critics like Judith Dobrzynski about “participation” and “experience” and how they’re responsible for ruining everything.  I ranted about it at some length. I won’t get into how completely off-base she is when she blames museums for displaying the kinds of contemporary art she doesn’t like, and instead focus on trends in museum practice, like participatory design and an emphasis on “experience.” Like the talks I’ve had about immersion, this was clearly another case of people attacking manifestations of deeper issues that are harder to talk about. When Dobrzynski bemoans the plague of participatory design in museums, she gets at the heart of the matter – the place (or lack thereof) for authority to manifest itself.

When interpretation feels like interference

Nothing to see here! CC-BY NC 2.0 image by Flickr user Jeremy Brooks

My understanding of this was greatly aided by Regan Forrest’s latest post called “Mediation or interference.” Read her whole post. It’s short and good. Read the comments, too. Regan and I both come from science backgrounds and have the inherent bias to be explicit which can be challenging in an art museum where interpretation and education tread very carefully around the galleries. We both have had experiences of interpretations we thought effective being deemed intrusive or pandering by others because they were perceived as interfering with their experience of the art. And there was that word interfering again, one of the factors Bitgood listed as inhibiting a sense of flow. Could it be that this emphasis on active participation was standing in the way of some visitors having their optimal experiences? I think Regan’s use of the word “mediation” was very apt. It literally means “to be in the middle of.” Successful mediations can be like having a trusted guide at your side whereas a less successful one can feel like someone’s literally getting in your way.

For those who prefer a passive approach to their museum-going, museums’ attempts to provide more mediation for the active learners will probably always come across as intrusive. So, it becomes a question of balance, how much of each kind of experience is the right amount for your content and your audiences? Dobrzynski herself is clear that it’s not an either/or situation, as much as a question of degrees. She and I doubtless draw the line in different places, but that’s life.

What does authority look like nowadays? 

Who gets to step up to the podium? CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user karindalziel

Upon reflection, the most intriguing part of her opinion piece was how much she dwelt on issues of authority. Part of the problem for art museums (and I think this is one way in which they diverge from other kinds of museums) is the way that they have had aspects of religious institutions placed on them by Western secularizing culture. Pulling out the descriptors used in Dobrzynski’s article associated with good old-fashioned art museums and you get “treasure houses, masterpieces, the universal, cultural treasuries , beauty, inspiration, uplift, spiritual, thrill, contemplation, solace,  inspiration.” This is the language of the art museum as secular temple to Culture as popularized by writers like Alain de Botton, who famously said in yet another opinion piece beating up art museums, “You often hear it said that ‘musems of art are our new churches’: in other words, in a secularising world, art has replaced religion as a touchstone of our reverence and devotion. It’s an intriguing idea, part of the broader ambition that culture should replace scripture…”

There is also a reverence for authority among the critics most aghast at anything experiential or participatory. After listing the usual punching bags of participatory or crowdsourced projects, Dobrzynski laments, “Shouldn’t those decisions be left to the experts? If not, what do they do? Why study art history?” In a further foray into the participatory wars, she reprints verbatim a nasty accusation-laden opinion piece from a Santa Cruz website, beating up museum director Nina Simon for allegedly driving off professionals with art and history expertise. Another opinion piece by Stephen Kessler in the Santa Cruz Sentinel laments that

“Hands-on self-expression, the “interaction” of scribbling something on a piece of paper and sticking it on a wall in response to an exhibit do not really advance a creative agenda. They indulge a collective narcissism that might be better embodied in a bring-your-own-mirror show where everyone would be given a space on the wall to hang their looking glass for a long feel-good gaze at themselves. It could be called “Reflections in Interactivity,” and I’m sure it would be very successful.”

Suffice it to say that this view of the equation is,

visitor participation = the complete overthrow of traditional authority. 

In another manifestation of this phenomenon, Suse Cairns provides a thoughtful recap of a recent Twitter dustup about 3D mashups of art objects that wound up involving art blogger and critic Lee Rosenbaum, Don Undeen from the Met, and Koven Smith from Denver Art Museum. In the midst of badmouthing Undeen’s work at the Met as “hokey” and “counterproductive” to deeper understanding of the art, she says “I’m fine with bringing digital experts into the museum, but close oversight must come from the knowledgeable art experts.” She assumes, and perhaps correctly, that there was no curatorial involvement in the Met project’s Undeen is working on. The apparent absence of authoritative voices is a constant refrain, and I think the important issue underneath all the handwringing about “participation”.

This notion that these kinds of participatory projects are the equivalent of letting the inmates run the asylum echoes a concern widely held in the art historical community, not just by critics and curmudgeons.  Dallas Museum of Art’s director Max Anderson’s “The Crisis in Art History: Ten Problems, Ten Solutions” goes so far as to list crowdsourcing’s threat to authority as Problem #6.

“Museum curators, once guardians of the unassailable fortress of institutional authority, were never infallible, but they are now, often as not, simply one voice of many. Their saturation in the physical properties of an object may not entitle them to insulation from criticism or rejoinders, but they are being increasingly sidelined as debates of an interpretive sort enjoy as much currency as the lifetime study of objects in close proximity. One solution is for art historians and curators to devote more pages and column inches to explaining why art matters and why it should move us, and to be less patronizing about the relevance of our discipline just because the public does not see the point.”

Unlike some of the other writers I’ve mentioned, Anderson actually is interested in solutions that are more nuanced than just “Get rid of all this newfangled crap and put things back the way they were.” Anderson, in one sentence, provides a way forward. More engagement, less patronization of the people upon whom we depend for our livelihood and institutional raisons d’etre. Among his ten solutions, Anderson lists “Curators should be less fearful of academic reprisal if they talk to visitors like human beings rather than writing labels for their peers.” Too often, I’ve been in museums and had that feeling the audience for a particular label or exhibition wasn’t the public, but rather the peers of the creators. The result of that kind willful neglect of the audience is manifested in things that childish CNN “Why I Hate Museums” piece by James Durston. The tone of the piece really grates on me, but under the bile the author makes some valid points. Visitors, like everybody else, don’t like being ignored and/or patronized.

Ignore it and maybe it’ll go away. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Lulu Vision

In many ways, this conversation has tremendous parallels to one from my grad school days in historical archaeology. I still recall having a heated debate with an emeritus history professor about the seeming disparity in how much archaeologists cite historians versus how much historians cite archaeologists when they’re writing about the same subject. Without batting an eyelash, he said “The day an archaeologist writes something that’s readable by anybody other than archaeologists, I’ll read it.” Well, that certainly shut me up, because it was (and remains) a valid criticism of that field, and, to a lesser degree, of museums.

The way forward is not to cede the field to the crowd, but rather to meet them, bringing along all the authority and expertise that draws visitors to museums in the first place. It is starting to happen. A prime example is Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One. I have some issues with it, but one place it succeeds beautifully is that uses the whole museum’s expertise to make a new kind of visitor experience. Not just educational, or technological, but those plus substantial curatorial support.

There are other examples out there. Who else is doing great work marrying authority and participation to make memorable museum experiences?

In the third and final installation of this series, I’d like to look at the “issue” of visitors taking photographs in museums.

[UPDATE 11/4/13: I replaced one quote in the MAH paragraph after finding a more grown-up example of the dissenting view on participatory design.] 

Further Reading:

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi
Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
New York: Harper Perennial, ISBN 0-06-092820-4

Judith Dobrzynski
“High Culture Goes Hands-On”
The Sunday New York Times, August 10, 2013
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/11/opinion/sunday/high-culture-goes-hands-on.html

Regan Forrest
“Mediation or interference.”
Interactivate
http://reganforrest.com/2013/10/mediation-or-interference/

Alain de Botton
“Why Our Museums Of Art Have Failed Us And What They Might Learn From Religions”
The Huffington Post, March 14, 2012
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alain-de-botton/why-our-museums-of-art-ha_b_1327694.html

Suse Cairns
“I like your old stuff better than your new stuff.” On 3D mashups, appropriation, and irreverence”
museum geek
http://museumgeek.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/i-like-your-old-stuff-better-than-your-new-stuff-on-3d-mashups-appropriation-and-irreverence/

Max Anderson,
“The Crisis in Art History: Ten Problems, Ten Solutions”
Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, 16 Dec 2011
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01973762.2011.622238

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Looking for leadership is a wicked problem

Identifying the kinds of leaders who will push the museum sector into new kinds of technologically mediated experiences is not a technology problem, it’s a cultural problem – a wicked problem – that can’t be planned away, or addressed by a white paper. The way to address it is to make new kinds of museum experiences, with new people at the table, along with current practitioners and museum leaders. And the people who will make them will have something bigger to say than just “We should use these new digital technologies! They’re great!” Their vision and message will naturally encompass these tools, and older, more traditional ones.

Looking for leaders who “get” new technologies is what social scientists call a “wicked problem.” I first ran into the term at the New Media Consortium retreat, and it has stayed in my brain, and not just because it sounds mellifluous to my New England ears. It is a useful way to look at a lot of things going on in the field.

Aussies asking questions

As examples; Seb Chan recently posted a pithy little provocation on museums making the shift to digital collecting. I suggest you check it out, particularly the comments. I don’t know how much I agree with it, but it’s thought-provoking, particularly since he sees the problem of digital technology adoption not as a technology problem, but as a cultural problem. Integrating the digital is a messy problem, with lots of issues intertwined with it. I especially liked his construction of the ‘buildings & exhibitions vs platforms & media’ continuum, as a way to think about ways forward.

This is to me, related to Suse Cairns musings on technologists, the state of museum leadership, and what the next generation of museum leaders needs to know. Now there’s a thorny problem. I lived through the whole “We need museums to act more like businesses” era, with its attendant rush to turn directors into CEOs and rash of executives with “real-world” experience brought in to fix our systemic problems. I certainly don’t want us to do that again, only this time with technologists, whatever that term means. So how do we untangle this wicked problem? [extra credit if you can explain why the museum space is so full of interesting Australian thinkers.]

Wicked problems require different kinds of solutions

It’s worth looking at how wicked problems are dealt with. Janet Carding from ROM tweeted a link to a piece Jon Kolko wrote for the Stanford Social Innovation Review called “Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving” that defines wicked problems nicely. In short,

“A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.”

What is particularly useful to this discussion is his conception of how one deals with these problems,

“These problems can be mitigated through the process of design, which is an intellectual approach that emphasizes empathy, abductive reasoning (otherwise known as guesswork), and rapid prototyping.”

This is a design problem, not an intellectual exercise, or a philosophical debate. How do we create something that results in leaders who “get” digital technologies? Note Kolko doesn’t say one can solve wicked problems like this, rather, they are “mitigated”. When it comes to leadership and innovation, I’m not sure one can ever expect to find leaders who know everything and are up to speed on whatever the new thing is.

Empathy, guesswork, and rapid prototyping. Not a bunch of usual suspects in a conference room. Not an outside expert. Not another plan. One of my favorite moments of the NMC retreat was Larry Johnson’s line, “Our strategic planning is based on a world that no longer exists.” Amen, brother. This may be why I still quote Ted Forbes’ mantra, “Do it now. Do the best you can. Do it better tomorrow.” And now that Max Anderson and Rob Stein have joined him at the Dallas Museum of Art, I can’t wait to see what “better” looks like.

You need new people around to generate really new ideas

Mia Ridge posted a great round up from last year’s MCN conference that included a gem from Bruce Wyman, “current visitors most frequently give *incremental* ideas. You need different folk to take those great leaps forward. That’s us.” Another way of saying it I’ve often used is, “If Henry Ford had asked his customers what they wanted, none of them would’ve said ‘An automobile!’ They ask for a better horse, because that’s what they knew.” Substitute “visitors” for “customers” and you can get a sense of hard it makes it to bring digital experiences in from the cold if you treat them as a normal kind of problem.

But if you were instead to treat this lack of understanding like a wicked problem and look at other ways of addressing it? One candidate might be something like a co-creation process, a process that brings unusual suspects together with museum teams.

Be in it together

At the Museum of Science, we’re currently developing a new permanent exhibition on the nature of technology, and trying to figure out a co-creation model that will get us the kind of exhibition we wouldn’t be able to/willing to/comfortable with making by ourselves. Designing the design process is incredibly hard work, and fraught with all kinds of peril that we can all clearly see. Just the learning curve involved in getting outside parties to understand what we do could be a full-time job, but the benefits, if we get it right, should allow us to do something both new, and more connected to communities who believe in the museum.

Stefan Stern wrote a great piece in the Harvard Business Review about co-creation and how it differs from other ways of developing new things. “Co-creators look for the rejecters, the extreme users, the hackers, and the bloggers. If they have a design or marketing background, all the better.” The article profiles one UK-based company’s methods for co-creating that are business-focused, but worth looking at. They include:

  • Have an open mind, and be creative about whom you bring in as a possible co-creator.
  • Co-creation works best when you build a strong community.
  • When you’re running co-creation workshops, don’t expect a big “a-ha” moment when the clouds part and somebody blurts out The Next Big Thing. The real art is in synthesizing all the ideas afterwards and understanding the big, unlooked-for themes that underpin them.
  • Get your top people involved in the workshops.
  • Prototype, prototype, prototype. Make your ideas real. Then break them and make them again.

The part that resonated for me personally was the importance of having top people involved. How many directors do you know who use social media tools? I can only think of three: Max Anderson, Nina Simon, and Janet Carding, and I know at least two of them used them before they were directors. How many museum directors, or even assistant/deputy/associate directors have you ever seen at a tech-themed gathering like MCN, Museums and the Web, or even tech-oriented sessions at AAM or other mainstream conferences?

This “preaching to the choir” lament is a constant refrain at conferences, but how many of us currently interested in these issues have ever invited or even discussed the issues with a leader, or said, “You should really go to ____. It’s a great conference and you’ll learn a ton.” I know have been guilty of that. The appeal of flying below the radar is tactically unquestionable, but I think in the long run it may be strategically untenable.

Have something to say

I’ve been writing a lot about vision recently, so I’ll refrain from repeating myself too much, other than to end with another provocation and a question. Alain de Botton recently had an editorial posted on the (UK) Museums Association site called, “Art museums have become pointless: they should learn from Christianity.” He doesn’t mean that museums should become mouthpieces for Christianity. Rather, he thinks museums have forgotten their message about what’s important, which is what religion excels at. He is speaking specifically about art museums, but I think his point applies to the whole sector.

“Try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose – to make us a bit more sane, or slightly good or once in a while or a little wiser and kinder – and tried to use the art in their possession to prompt us to be so?”

“The challenge is to rewrite the agendas for our art museums so that collections can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as, for centuries, they served those of theology. Curators should attempt to put aside their deep-seated fears of instrumentalism and once in a while co-opt works of art to an ambition of helping us to get through life.”

Part of that new agenda and ambition could be written in new ways with new technologies, but the technologies themselves aren’t much use as communication media without something worth communicating. Those leaders with something to communicate will find ways to get their message out using every channel at their disposal. I’ve written already about vision and desire, but ambition is a better word. Finding them and holding them up is the hard part, the heart of the wicked problem.

So another thing that seems like a technology issue turns into a people issue. That may be another theme for 2012. And the only thing I can see that might help unwinding some of the threads of this wicked problem is to do more open projects, do them with unusual folks, do them in broad daylight, and make sure your directors can see you, maybe even be part of the process.

Related Links:

Seb Chan – Museums making the shift to digital collecting
http://www.freshandnew.org/2012/03/museums-making-digital-shift/

Suse Cairns – Can a technologist get ahead in museums?
http://museumgeek.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/can-a-technologist-get-ahead-in-museums/

Mia Ridge – Report from ‘What’s the point of a museum website’ at MCN2011
http://openobjects.blogspot.com.au/2012/02/report-from-whats-point-of-museum.html

Stefan Stern – A Co-creation Primer
http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/02/co-creation.html

Alain de Botton – Museums Association
http://www.museumsassociation.org/community/comment/27022012-alain-de-botton-art-museums-christianity

[3/13/2012 – made minor edits for clarity and to sound a little less self-important.]

UPDATE: Rob Stein’s Museums and the Web 2012 paper is also a good read on tech and admin. Get it here.

 

UPDATE 3/22/12: Danny Birchall posted a great example of how co-creation can look in his description of developing the Wellcome Collection’s “Axon” game with neuroscientists, museum professionals and game designers.